The deep satisfaction of reading Wide Sargasso Sea comes from its pains as well as its pleasures. All those white people closing ranks. Edward Rochester chipping away at Antoinette Cosway’s name and her sanity. Jane Eyre’s happiness negotiated over another woman’s dead body. It feels dangerous to read, as if it could chase away your own sanity. And it’s Jean Rhys’s best novel, no contest. While writing my own novel I found myself drawn again and again to it, sometimes only to look at the cover of the W.W. Norton edition I keep on my desk. It’s a Pierre Mornet illustration: in the foreground, a woman reclining in a white slip looks out from a bed of hibiscuses big as fists. There’s a burning plantation house in the distance, wearing a nimbus of fire. The woman’s skin seems to grow darker, her lips thicker, the more you stare at her. Her shape seems to shift. Her gaze at once mournful and erotic and flat. Something about her always puts me in mind of Amélie, the ‘half-caste’ housemaid who is nothing more than a bit player in Rhys’s novel.

When I return to the book now, it’s usually in search of her and not the ill-fated Antoinette. Amélie appears on the first page of Rochester’s narrative. She travels with him and Antoinette on their rain-soaked honeymoon journey up to Granbois: a ‘lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps’. The minute Antoinette goes off to a local woman’s house, ‘Amélie, who had been sitting with her back to us, turned round. Her expression was so full of delighted malice, so intelligent, above all so intimate, that I felt ashamed and looked away.’ Only the first few pages of Rochester’s narrative and already this sudden, shocking, sexual pinch, his pulse drumming more loudly in response to the maid than to his own wife.

Then Amélie does nothing much for pages and pages, apart from sweeping up some dead moths and delivering letters. But we know what’s going to happen. We knew it the moment her delighted malice crept into Rochester’s text. She’s the sexual pot-stirrer; it’s her job to come back and stir that pot.

Along comes the afternoon when Rochester’s convinced he’s been poisoned. After running himself ragged and falling asleep under the wild orange tree, he sits on the bed, waiting: ‘for I knew Amélie would come’. Sure enough, she does. She spoon-feeds him cold chicken and fruit, and: ‘Her arm behind my head was warm but on the outside when I touched it was cool, almost cold. I looked into her lovely meaningless face, sat up and pushed the plate away.’

Here I stop, reread, and stop again, while the novel changes gears with that single phrase: Her lovely meaningless face. The way those words work on me is visceral, not sensory, dredging up old, sour annoyances. For this is the clichéd story of the Caribbean: the story of men like Rochester helping themselves to women like Amélie. The lord of the manor, the dark maid, his fair wife next door, with her ear (and the rest of her unloved flesh) pressed to the wall, straining both to hear them and to block them out.

The scene continues. Rochester dishes out money and asks Amélie about her plans for her future. She gives him a needle-thin response: ‘She wanted to go to Rio. There were rich men in Rio.’ First, she plans to walk to Massacre: ‘My legs strong enough to carry me.’

Her legs call to mind her body. The body that will endure the hinted-at transactions with all those rich Rio men. But her face (lovely, meaningless), the animating part of her, with all its malice and intelligence, remains unremarked upon. Rochester’s only response to it has been to look away.

It seems to me that Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea because she knew that skin can drive you mad. In her autobiography, Smile Please, she recounts an early experience in Dominica watching the carnival through an open window: ‘The life surged up to us sitting stiff and well-behaved, looking on.’ Rhys knew the dancers wouldn’t welcome her, because she was white, nor would her own family take kindly to her joining in. She’s telling us that race keeps bodies in their separate ranks. This is how bodies work. They cleave us from the world and each other. They make us lonely. They make us alone. But then her text is pierced by a sudden, colicky desire: ‘I used to long so fiercely to be black and to dance, too, in the sun, to that music.’

I’m arrested by that idea also: young Jean Rhys, watching the dancers, longing to be black. Her own body the dividing line.

Early in Wide Sargasso Sea, when Antoinette runs towards her friend Tia in the aftermath of the fire at Coulibri and Tia (who is black) throws a stone at her, there’s a similar moment, which I read as a suggestion that Antoinette, like Rhys, is a white Creole who longs to be black: ‘We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.’

Has any white Creole in possession of all her faculties ever really longed (fiercely or otherwise) to be black?

This is not a rhetorical question. Skin should be meaningless, but most of the white Creoles I knew growing up in the Caribbean wasted a lot of their energy on being white. Fear of becoming black was the wolf at the door. Babies’ fingers and toes were plucked over religiously for signs of darkening. Hair was monitored for the slightest kink. Skin was guarded from the sun with crib-learned paranoia. Rhys’s desire jarred with all this. How could she know the way a black body would mediate her experience of the world? That when the word ‘Creole’ slips from a white body to a black one it loses its benevolence? Not to mention all the bleaching and straightening and contorting required before a black body assumes an acceptable shape.

As much as I hold the novel dear, for all the work it does to penetrate the experience of the white Creole, Wide Sargasso Sea never seems to cross the border of black skin. Black bodies in the novel are either strong or sexy (with the exception of the old woman, Christophine, handing out love potions and aphorisms). Amélie and Antoinette are both neither-nor: Amélie is mixed race, while Antoinette is neither white enough for the English nor ‘black’ enough for everyone else. They both stand outside closed ranks that neither of them can join. Yet Rhys is in some ways guilty of doing to Amélie what Charlotte Brontë did to Bertha Mason: building her from the stale images she herself had been force-fed. In her autobiography, Rhys wrote: ‘Black girls seemed … to be perfectly free. Children swarmed but negro marriages that I knew of were comparatively rare. Marriage didn’t seem a duty with them as it was with us.’ This doesn’t add up to anything more than simply craving a kind of sexual freedom, a little time off from the supposed stiff good behaviour of her own ‘kind’. Wanting something she didn’t, or couldn’t, understand. The black body, always sly, lascivious or lazy. Always either overlooked or mercilessly patrolled. Always all body. History its own unique affliction.

How lovely our bodies are, how meaningless.

The morning after his sexual encounter with Amélie, Rochester begins to ‘[feel] differently’ towards her: ‘her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought.’ Her face (lovely, meaningless) has undergone a metamorphosis. Is it any coincidence that he has ‘no wish to touch her’ now that her body is asserting itself? Dark, and getting darker. Her skin coming between them, in a way that even his newly minted marriage did not.

While she was writing Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys said in a letter that she’d thought ‘of calling it “The First Mrs Rochester” with profound apologies to Charlotte Brontë and a deep curtsey too’. In Rhys’s novel, when Antoinette (now Bertha) and Jane startle each other in the hall at Thornfield, Antoinette is perceived as a ghost, which in a sense is what she has become. It’s a figurative disembodiment. And then she gives up her body entirely, finally transcending skin. She lays down her life in service of Jane Eyre’s marriage plot.

But what of Amélie? What of her lovely meaningless face?

With a curtsey and apology to Rhys, I wrote my own novel partly in response to Amélie. It is not in any way a retelling of Rhys’s book, but my protagonist was loosely inspired by the lingering image of Amélie’s face, already dark, and growing darker; her lips, already thick, and growing thicker. And by those words – lovely, meaningless – which chiselled up old angers. But what if I could make her mean something more than her body? What if the ‘half-caste’ housemaid was the most intelligent person in the room? What if she, too, tried to transcend her skin?

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